Monday, June 30, 2014

Zen Garden, Bamboo Grove, Shinto Shrine, Imperial Palace--All in a Hard Day's Sightseeing Work!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Kyoto, Japan

 A Zen Garden, A Bamboo Grove, A Shinto Shrine, An Imperial Palace—All in a Day’s Sightseeing Work!

 Not needing to rush out anywhere this morning gave us a chance to enjoy a leisurely breakfast in the Dining Hall of the Via Inn Hotel where we re-connected with our friends over fresh bread rolls, salad, fruit and soup. Then, having chalked out a route for our last sightseeing day in Kyoto, off we set, well-sustained for some strenuous walking.

On the Subway to Arashiyama:

            In the far north western end of Kyoto is Arashiyama, an area well-frequented by visitors for its interesting nooks and crannies. Having equipped ourselves with a Day Pass for unlimited subway and bus rides, we rode the subway to the last stop and then hopped into a bus (No. 71) to the first stop on our sightseeing agenda for today.  It was a long and slow journey through narrow lanes of a modest village but after we crossed a river over a wide concrete bridge, we arrived at the Zen Garden we had travelled far to see.

 The Zen Gardens on Tenryuji Temple:

            Because we were all temple-d out, we did not spend any time venturing inside the important Zen Temple of Tenryuji; but because its gardens are so famous for their Zen Buddhist minimalism, we decided to spend the 500 yen to take a tour. Known to be among some of the best ‘stroll’ gardens in Japan, these did not disappoint. As we strolled at our leisure on what was another uncomfortably humid day, we took in the multitude of low growing cherry trees (that must be quite spectacular when in blossom), the several low-growing maple trees with their very tiny fine leaves and the dozens of hydrangea bushes that were in full bloom in a variety of vivid colors as they were planted strategically around the ponds and pools and fountains of this magical space.

            By this time, we had learned that Japanese gardens are of two types: Dry gardens that represent the Earth—these are recognized with their white sand and pebbles in which geometrical patterns are raked; the second kind are Wet gardens with ponds and pools that represent the Ocean. Tenryuji’s gardens have both and there are also well-shaded areas (as a result of taller, well-established cypress trees) where the ground is covered thickly with moss and ferns. And as you saunter through these narrow lanes bordered with bamboo fences and stone paving, you meander through the traditional ryokan (homes) with their wide dark wooden verandahs that have shoji doors occasionally left open so that you can glimpse the tatami-mat covered floors within. It was very cool, very romantic and we were glad we made the long hike to this part of Kyoto which is nestled at the foot of the mountains that ring the city.

 Sauntering in a Bamboo Grove:

            At the northern end of the garden is a little wicket gateway that leads to one of the most magical parts of Kyoto—the Arashiyama Bamboo Groves. This is well touted in all the guide books which is why it is so popular. You suddenly find yourselves on a narrow pathway lined with brown colored low bamboo fronds while towering above you and enclosed on both sides of the fence are bamboo trees. The sun filters softly through the lush foliage of the well-formed trees as they softly dapple the forest floor. It makes a perfect location for a long romantic walk and such venues just beg to be photographed—although, as the guide book rightly points out—pictures do not do it justice. Of course, there isn’t very much to do in this part of town—other than gawp in delight at the soft quality of the light that at times is so soft as to be barely there at all. Needless to say, Llew and I took several pictures as the path curved softly at intervals. This is an excursion I would most heartily recommend to anyone visiting Kyoto because I am not sure this sight or this experience can be replicated anywhere else in the world.

 On the Bus and Train Again to Fushimi-Inari Taisha:

            With not a moment to spare, we retraced our steps back to the Main Kyoto Station on the bus and the subway line in order to catch yet another bus that would take us to our next port of call—the Shinto Shrine of Fushimi-Inari. Now you might wonder why we would make an excursion to yet another temple—but the fact is that in Kyoto it is not the case that when you have seen one temple, you have seen them all. Far from it. While the temples might share similarities of style and design, each one is slightly different in an extraordinary kind of way. And here at Fushimi, the Shinto shrine is world-renowned for its ‘tori’ or vermillion gates in the shape of a giant T that are repeated endlessly so as to create tunnels of tori that fascinate the visitor.

            So although the bus ride to the temple on the No. 5 bus was long-drawn out and wearying, it took us to this incredible spot where, once again, we expended a great deal of film in order to capture the superb atmosphere of the place. Fushimi was conceived as a place to celebrate bounty and in keeping with that aim, there are stone sculptures of foxes all over—said to be symbols of plenty. In their mouths they carry stone keys—said to be keys to the city’s granaries. Visitors are so fond of these foxes that they tie little red bibs around their necks.

            We spent a good one hour in this lovely spot as we walked under the arched tunnels caused bv the tori that had sutras from Buddhism painted over them in Japanese script. Occasionally, there were dark metal lanterns that swung from the low roof lines—as evening falls, this area must appear truly enchanted as the soft glow of these electric lights meet the century-old romance of the vermillion tunnels.

            But, of course, we could not wait to find out what it must look like at dusk for we needed to get to the next spot on our agenda—a Visit to the Imperial Palace of Kyoto.

 A Tour of the Imperial Palace of Kyoto:

            A few days ago, Llew had obtained a permit pass that would allow me to take a one hour tour of the Imperial Palace which is located in the sprawling Imperial Park in the middle of the city of Kyoto—he had taken it alone a few days ago. Our tour was at 2. 00 pm and we were told to arrive there 20 minutes prior to its commencement.

            Grabbing ham and cheese sandwiches form a subway station, we ate our makeshift lunch on a bench in the Imperial Park and then quickly arrived at the start of the tour where our permit slips and passports were checked before entry was permitted.

            Our tour began with a film screened in a Waiting Room where we were taken through the paces of our tour. It lasted about ten minutes and then a guide materialized. In heavily accented English and wearing a portable mike, she then led us on a tour of the palace precincts that lie concealed behind extremely heavy, ornamental gates. I have never been on a tour with so many people—there were at least 200 from many different parts of the world. The tour wound its way through the royal structures each of which has an interesting indigenous name and then through the gardens at the back that are created in accordance with the principles of Zen.

 Overall, the tour was disappointing as we did not go inside any of the buildings but merely saw them from the outside. The guide explained the Kyoto was the capital of Imperial Japan for a thousand years and saw the lives and times of several emperors—until the capital was moved to Tokyo. Most of the furnishings of the palace have been moved to Tokyo and the buildings, although gorgeous from the outside, are quite empty within. We did have a glimpse into some of the old rooms with their ancient screen paintings of cranes and cherry trees and tigers and, in another room, of men enjoying a garden party. But, except for these minor aspects of history, there was not much that the tour offered. And, I suppose, after a whole week of strenuous sightseeing, we are slightly jaded at this stage. At the very end, she showed us a grove of topiaried pine trees that are deliberately shaped into bonsai-looking specimens by the painstaking pulling away of individual pine needles that simply boggled my mind.

 A Badly-Needed Afternoon Nap:

            By this time, both Llew and I were exhausted from all the walking and climbing we had accomplished during the day and so we decided to return to our hotel at 4. 00 pm for a quick nap and a spot of tea. And that was exactly what we did. Both of us slept for a good hour after which we brewed some tea in our hotel room. We also figured out what route we needed to take for our train journey to Hiroshima tomorrow morning.  By 7 pm, we decided to go out for a ride again to explore the Food Halls of Takashimaya—but by 8.00 pm, the store was closing for the day. We would have an early start tomorrow, so it made sense to get dinner somewhere close by.

 Dinner at Ippudo:

            Since we had enjoyed the gyoza (dumplings) and ramen noodle soup at Ippudo, we decided to return there tonight and indeed we had a repeat of our meal—except that this time we ordered the spicy soup which was absolutely delicious. Together with the gyoza and Asahi beer, we had a very enjoyable meal and upon finishing it, we lost no time getting back to our hotel.

            A hot shower later, we were ready to hit the sack having set the alarm for 5. 30 am so that we can accomplish the long train journey to Hiroshima and the neighboring island of Miyajima at the crack of dawn.

            Until then…sayonara.                        

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